South African team celebrates the historic win © Getty Images
South African team celebrate the historic win © Getty Images

On March 12, 2006, South Africa stunned the sporting world when they chased down a world record target against Australia in an ODI at Johannesburg. The reigning world champions had posted the first-ever score above 400 in the 50-over format with Ricky Ponting scoring 164. It should have been a comfortable victory, but little did anyone anticipate what was to come next. South Africa led by Graeme Smith and Herschelle Gibbs defied belief and Australia. Shrikant Shankar relives the greatest match in ODI history and arguably cricket history.

The tour

Ricky Ponting’s Australia had toured South Africa in the beginning of 2006. Australia had beaten South Africa Down Under in the three-match Test series 2-0. South Africa did not even make the best-of-three finals in the ODIs, as Sri Lanka went ahead. Australia were on a demolition course back in the day with almost all their stalwarts in prime form. There was only one Twenty20 International scheduled in their tour to the Rainbow Nation. South Africa won the high-scoring affair by a narrow two-run margin on Valentine’s Day 2006 at Johannesburg. The crowd at the New Wanderers Stadium were entertained, but would not have anticipated that more was to follow at the same venue a few weeks later.

South Africa won the first ODI at Centurion by six wickets via the Duckworth-Lewis method on February 26. The Proteas then took a 2-0 lead with another comprehensive 196-run victory in the second ODI at Cape Town on March 3. All was looking like smooth sailing. But this was no ordinary Australian side. They were the undisputed No 1 team in the world as they had won the previous two World Cups. Australia won the third ODI by 24 runs at Port Elizabeth on March 5. They then won the fourth ODI by a close one-wicket margin on March 10. The five-match ODI series was level at 2-2. Momentum was in Australia’s favour. Morale was not the highest in the South African camp.

The day

The fifth ODI was to be held at Johannesburg on March 12. Australia captain Ponting won the crucial toss and had no hesitation in electing to bat first. This was the first time Australia had come to the New Wanderers Stadium in an ODI since their annihilation of India in the 2003 World Cup final on March 23, 2003. Ponting had made merry of India’s bowling attack as he scored an unbeaten 140. Great memories that Ponting was eager to relive!

Australia had a strong line-up, but they were without the miserly old war horse — Glenn McGrath for the whole series. South Africa’s very own talisman Shaun Pollock was unavailable with injury and in came Johan van der Wath.

Ponting’s supremacy

Australia opened with Adam Gilchrist and Simon Katich. The two left-handers began in attacking fashion. Gilchrist was cutting square of the wicket and driving straight down the ground to race away. Katich too got his runs with his zone in the V down the ground. While Makhaya Ntini got smacked for runs, Andrew Hall, van der Wath and Roger Telemachus were also taken to the cleaners. Gilchrist got to his 44th ODI half-century in on 35 deliveries. He had not got the big runs in the previous four ODIs, but came good in the decider. In the meantime, Katich then launched van der Wath for a big six over wide long-on.

Ricky Ponting hit 164 in 105 balls © Getty Images
Ricky Ponting hit 164 in 105 balls © Getty Images

Just when Gilchrist looked like taking the game away, South Africa struck in the 16th over. Telemachus bowled a length delivery from round the wicket and Gilchrist pulled it towards mid-on. Hall took a stunning low catch  to his left to dismiss Gilchrist for 55 off 44 deliveries. He had struck nine fours in his innings. The opening partnership was worth 97.

That brought Ponting to the crease. But Katich took over as he flicked one behind square on the leg side to get to his ninth ODI half-century. He took 60 deliveries to get to his milestone. As the pacers were being carted for runs, South Africa captain Graeme Smith brought himself into the attack.

But the run-flow did not cease as Ponting got his trademark pull shot to going. Jacques Kallis came in and he too leaking runs. Katich even came down the track to Kallis and cut one through extra-cover. Ponting was in supreme form and accentuated to the fact by slog-sweeping Kallis over deep square-leg for six. He then came down the track to Kallis and pulled him for another six, this time over deep backward square-leg, to get to his 53rd ODI half-century off only 43 deliveries. Van der Wath also got pulled square for a six on the leg side.

Justin Kemp came in for one over and gave away 8. The fours and sixes continued as Ponting hit one off Ntini over long-on. Then, in the 31st over, Ntini struck to dismiss Katich for 79 runs off 90 deliveries. He dug one in short and Katich played the upper-cut straight to Telemachus at third-man. Katich had struck nine fours and one six in his innings. The second-wicket stand was worth 119 runs. Michael Hussey joined Ponting in the middle. There was some uncharacteristic fielding errors from the South Africans as Ponting and Hussey took the score forward.

Ponting then pulled a back of a length delivery from Kallis high and over deep mid-wicket for another six. Hussey then played a shot that EA Sports, in all probability, tried to incorporate in Cricket 2007. He came down the ground to Kallis’s medium-fast bowling and hit the ball over long-on for a huge six. He then pulled one from Kallis for a four behind square on the leg side. Ponting then pushed one from Smith on the off side and took a quick single to reach his 20th century in ODIs. The 300 was up by the 40th over and this did not look great for South Africa.

Hussey then got to his ninth ODI half-century as well. Even mishits from Ponting were going for fours. Hussey then hit a six off Hall square on the leg side. Ponting’s supremacy was shown as he went down on one knee and hit a speeding delivery from Ntini for a flat six over wide long-off. He then hit a massive six down the ground of Ntini. Hussey and Ponting then exchanged sixes between them. The ball was travelling high and over the boundary lines. Hussey then mishit a low full-toss from Hall to Ntini at long-on for 81 off 51 deliveries. He had scored 9 fours and 3 sixes.

The partnership between Ponting and Hussey was worth 158 runs and came at a run-rate of 10.08. Hussey’s wicket fell in the 47th over and with the score at 374. Andrew Symonds then came in. Ponting then reached his 150 with a six off all over mid-wicket. Telemachus bowled the 48th over and it was a poor one in all aspects. The first four deliveries were all no-balls. Two fours and a six were struck in those deliveries. For the first time in ODI history, a score of 400 was scored. Ponting then hit one in that very over to Boeta Dippenaar at the deep cover boundary. There was no elation from any of the South African players. The whole Wanderers crowd stood up to applaud the end of one of the greatest innings in ODI history.

Because of the situation, genuine batsmen like Damien Martyn and Michael Clarke were pushed down the order and Brett Lee was promoted to No. 6. Symonds and Lee took the score to 434 for 4 in Australia’s 50 overs. Australia had set the world record score in ODI history.

Behind the scenes

The South Africans were, obviously, not in the most cheerful of moods. When they asked coach Mickey Arthur for a plan, the response was harsh: “Sure. A plan to chase 434 — I’ve done loads of those.”

It finally took a line from Kallis to break the ice. He stated, matter-of-factly, with a straight face: “Okay, guys, I think the bowlers have done their job. Now it’s up to the batsmen. They’re 15 runs short; this is a 450 wicket.”

That did it. Every batsman would walk out, all guns blazing.

Herschelle Gibbs’s brilliance

Smith and Dippenaar opened the batting for South Africa. Lee’s first delivery was wide on the off side. Things got off to poor start as Dippenaar chopped one from Nathan Bracken onto his stumps in the second over. He was out for one off seven deliveries. People actually believe that the fall of his wicket actually helped South Africa later on as his strike-rate was on the slower side in ODIs — 67.9, to be precise. In came Herschelle Gibbs at No. 3. Smith hit the first four in the South African innings down the ground off Lee. Gibbs also got in on the act with fours square on the off side. Lee then bowled a short delivery and Gibbs pulled it behind square on the leg side for the first six in the innings.

Smith as usual got his boundaries square of the wicket on both sides of the wicket. Short deliveries, full deliveries, any kind of deliveries were put away for four by the two batsmen. Smith then came down the track and hit Mick Lewis for a four towards wide long-on. The 100 came up in the 13th over. Gibbs was the first to reach his half-century. He got to his 26th ODI half-century with a single on the off side. Smith then thwacked one from Lewis wide of mid-on to get to his 19th half-century. Symonds and Clarke were brought into the attack, but it did not matter as the runs kept flowing.

Gibbs then came down the ground and played his trademark inside-out shot over extra-cover for a four. South Africa had reached 150 in the 19th over. Smith then slog-swept one from Symonds over deep mid-wicket for a big six. By this time, the South African crowd knew they were going to witness something special. Smith came down the track to Clarke and lofted one for another big six over deep mid-wicket. Gibbs stepped out to Clark and hit another inside-out shot over deep extra-cover for a six. All the excitement came down a bit as Smith mishit one from Clarke to Hussey at the deep mid-wicket boundary. His great captain’s innings had ended for 90 off only 55 deliveries. He had struck 13 fours and 2 sixes. the partnership between Smith and Gibbs was worth 187 runs and it came at a run-rate of 8.97.

Herschelle Gibbs slammed 175 in 111 balls  which included 21 fours and seven sixes © Getty Images
Herschelle Gibbs slammed 175 in 111 balls which included 21 fours and 7 sixes © Getty Images

That didn’t stop Gibbs though as he swept Clarke for six over square-leg. 200 came up in the 23rd over. Gibbs reached his 16th ODI century with a four through cover. The milestone came off only 79 deliveries. He then hit one from Lewis over the top for six over long-on. Gibbs then let loose as he got three fours in one over off Clark. One through wide long-off, one through point and one through third-man. Then chance presented itself, but Australia could not take it. Lewis bowled a low full-toss and Gibbs went down on one knee and hit it straight to Bracken at mid-off. Bracken got both his hands to it right in front of his face, but dropped it. Gibbs was on 130 at the time in the 27th over.

AB de Villiers then hit one on the up off Lee over the mid-off fielder for a four. That brought up the 250 for South Africa in the 28th over. Lewis then came to bowl the 29th over and it was carnage. Gibbs smashed him for 3 fours and a six over deep mid-wicket. That brought up Gibbs’s 150 off only 100 deliveries. De Villiers then slogged one in the air off Bracken and Clarke took the catch right at the long-on boundary line. De Villiers had to depart for 14 off 20 deliveries in the 31st over. Kallis then joined Gibbs in the middle. Gibbs then smacked one from Symonds over deep mid-wicket for six. That six was the 22nd in the match, which was the world record at the time. Symonds followed that with a full-toss and Gibbs pulled it over for another six.

But the very next delivery, Gibbs under-hit one and Lee took the catch at deep mid-off. Gibbs had been dismissed for 175 off 111 deliveries in the 32nd over with South Africa’s score at 299. He had struck 21 fours and seven sixes in his brilliant innings. After a while, the crowd stood up to applaud another great innings in the same match — one of the best of all-time. Mark Boucher had joined Kallis. Most of South Africa’s power-hitter were back in the dressing room and Kallis and Boucher were exactly not the ones to speed things along at the rate required. Kallis then returned one straight back to Symonds and was dismissed for 20 off 21 deliveries. Momentum was clearly on Australia’s side.

Kemp came in at No. 7. Boucher then threw his bat at a wide delivery from Lee and got a four behind point. That was the first boundary in 50 balls. That was also the 80th four in the match and broke the world record for the most fours in one ODI. Kemp then cut one from Bracken to Martyn at backward-point and was out for 13 off 17 deliveries. South Africa were at 355 for 6 in 42.1 overs. They needed another 80 runs off 47 deliveries.

Van der Wath walked out at at No. 8, and immediately joined in the fun.. Lewis bowled one straight and van der Wath hit it through the line and over the top for six. The ball initially seemed to go over long-off, but curved wide and went over deep extra-cover.

He then hit another over deep extra-cover for his second six. Bracken came in from round the wicket and van der Wath hit it just over the mid-wicket fielder for four. He hit the next delivery way over the fence for a massive six. South Africa needed 50 off 33 deliveries. The situation called for a cool brain, but van der Wath then hit one from Bracken to Ponting at extra-cover. He was out for 35 off 18 deliveries with a four and 3 sixes. South Africa’s score was at 399 for 7 in 46.3 overs. South Africa needed 36 off 21 deliveries. Telemachus was the next batsman in. he got off the mark with two runs and that brought the 400 for South Africa.

Telemachus then swept a yorker from Bracken smartly and got a four in front of the short fine-leg fielder. Lewis bowled one full and straight and Boucher slapped that through mid-wicket for a four. That brought up Lewis’ 100 in the match. Boucher got another four off Lewis with a thick inside-edge past short fine-leg. Telemachus showed off his brute strength with a thumping shot off Lewis over extra-cover for four. Lewis had conceded 113 runs in his 10 overs.

South Africa needed 13 runs off 12 deliveries with 3 wickets in hand. But there was more drama as Telemachus hit one from Bracken high in the air and Hussey did exceptionally well to reach it from long-off and take the catch. The score was 423 for 8 in 48.2 overs. Bracken had got himself a five-wicket haul in all the run-hemorrhaging.

Hall joined Boucher in the middle. Bracken finished his quota of 10 overs taking 5 for 67. For the kind of match, they were legendary figures. As Lee came into bowl the last over, South Africa needed 7 with Boucher on strike.

Lee bowled one full, and Boucher hit straight back. Lee stuck his right leg out and stopped a certain four, but also got hit on the foot. They got a run. 6 from 5.

It took a while for the medics to get Lee back in action. He bowled the second delivery on a good length and Hall pulled it over and between mid-wicket and mid-on for four. 2 from 4.

But the drama refused to end. Lee bowled a similar delivery next up and Hall pulled it straight to Clarke at mid-on. 2 from 3, but more importantly, South Africa were 9 down.

Ntini was the last batsman. He somehow managed to guide one through third-man for a single. 1 from 2, which meant that South Africa could not lose, and Boucher was on strike.

Lee bowled full and fast, and Boucher hit lofted it over mid-on four, and pandemonium broke out at Bull Ring. South Africa had pulled off the greatest run-chase ever with a ball to spare and a wicket in hand. They had also won the five-match series 3-2. The ‘chokers’ had freed themselves of that term. Johannesburg and the world witnessed the greatest match in ODI history.

The final scorecard shows South Africa's majestic achievement © Getty Images
The final scorecard shows South Africa’s majestic achievement © Getty Images

The absence of McGrath and Pollock was cited as one reason for the amalgamation of runs. But the South Africans didn’t care, they had written themselves in the history books. Two totals of over 400 were scored on the same day and it was the second of those that was the higher score. At the presentation ceremony both Ponting and Gibbs were jointly announced as the Players of the Match. But Ponting let Gibbs have his moment in glory. Pollock was declared as the Player of the Series.

That was also the last time Lewis played for Australia. Ponting regrouped his side and sent out a message as Australia won the following three-match Test series 3-0. But no one could take away Smith’s and South Africa’s glory on March 12, 2006.

Brief scores:

Australia 434 for 4 in 50 overs (Adam Gilchrist 55, Simon Katich 79, Ricky Ponting 164, Michael Hussey 81; Roger Telemachus 2 for 87) lost to South Africa 438 for 9 in 49.5 overs (Graeme Smith 90, Herschelle Gibbs 175, Mark Boucher 50*, Johan van der Wath 35; Nathan Bracken 5 for 67, Andrew Symonds 2 for 75) by 1 wicket.

Players of the Match: Ricky Ponting (Australia) & Herschelle Gibbs (South Africa).

(Shrikant Shankar is a writer/reporter at Previously he has done audio commentary for various matches involving India, Indian Premier League and Champions League Twenty20 for You can follow him on Twitter @Shrikant_23)

On the other hand, the South Africans were visibly shaken. When Arthur was asked to devise a plan to knock down the total, he could only say, with a hint of sarcasm, of course: “Sure. A plan to chase 434 — I’ve done loads of those.” It wasn’t until Jacques Kallis, with a straight face, chipped in with words to the effect of “OK, guys, I think the bowlers have done their job. Now it’s up to the batsmen. They’re 15 runs short; this is a 450 wicket,” that the other players came out of their shells.